Posted on: March 19, 2020 at 12:29 pm
Last updated: October 16, 2020 at 1:48 pm

Since the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, broke out in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, the country’s officials have put some extreme measures in place to contain the virus. Trains no longer stopped in Wuhan. Anyone who thought they might have the virus went to one of the nation’s specialized fever clinics, which provided up to two hundred CT scans per day.

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Testing for the virus was made easily accessible and free, and patients in fever clinics who were confirmed to have coronavirus were sent to an isolation center or a hospital. Any COVID-19 related costs that were not covered by a patient’s own insurance was covered by the Chinese government.

In response to the massive need for more hospital beds, construction workers in China worked around the clock to build two new hospitals in only a couple weeks, and other buildings were repurposed to support more patients. Entire hospital wards were walled off to contain the virus.

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China also used their large-scale surveillance system that they had set up during the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, which identified and followed up with people who might have come into contact with an infected person. This is an extremely necessary tool, particularly in the early stages of an outbreak.

All non-urgent medical care was postponed, and many doctor’s visits were moved online in order to reduce the stress that has been put on the medical care system.

Even while quarantined, it has been relatively easy for citizens to get extra food and supplies. Fifteen million people had to order food online, and all of it got delivered with minimal mistakes. This is a stark contrast from the panic-buying that has occurred in other countries around the world. 

People all over the country shifted jobs to assist medical workers during the outbreak. Highway workers were delivering food, receptionists were teaching people how to put on hospital gowns- most of these people were volunteers.

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Above all else, Chinese citizens were very cooperative with the measures the government put in place with regard to social distancing and isolation. Instead of fighting each other for bottles of hand-sanitizer, they stood together in solidarity, doing their part to quell the spread of the virus.

These extreme measures put in place made two things perfectly clear, the first being that they worked. Since peaking in February, cases of COVID-19 in the country have steadily declined. The second? That the rest of the world is not ready for what’s to come [1].

Read: Coronavirus Can Live On Surfaces For 2-3 Days — Here’s How To Clean Them

A Message from Italy

While China took swift, decisive, and extreme action to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, other nations in Europe and the Americas have not been so quick. One doctor from Italy described the current state of their healthcare system.

“In Milan, in Bergamo, in Padua, [doctors] are having to choose between intubating a 40-year-old with two kids, a 40-year old who is fit and healthy with no comorbidities, and a 60-year-old with high blood pressure, because they don’t have enough beds. In the hallway, meanwhile, there are another 15 people waiting who are already hardly breathing and need oxygen.” [2]

The doctor, who chose to remain anonymous, explained that they have not even hit the peak of the virus yet, and they are already drowning. She is urging people to impose self-isolation and social-distancing, since it is the only tool we have to fight the spread of the virus.

She also described that from her perspective, watching the slow response happening in the United States is “like watching a familiar horror movie, where the protagonists, yet again, split into pairs or decide to take a tour of a dark basement”, and described the similarly slow response that took place in Italy.

“We were so complacent that even when people with coronavirus symptoms started turning up, we wrote each off as a nasty case of the flu. We kept the economy going, pointed fingers at China and urged tourists to keep traveling. And the majority of us told ourselves and each other: this isn’t so bad. We’re young, we’re fit, we’ll be fine even if we catch it.” [2]

This way of thinking has been catastrophic for the country. The number of coronavirus cases in Italy is now over 31 500, and the death toll recently surpassed 2 500. That puts the country’s mortality COVID-19 mortality rate at nearly eight percent, more than twice the global average [3].

Read: 20 Coronavirus Myths Busted

Are U.S. Hospitals Ready?

The short answer is no. The United States already lags behind many other countries (including Italy) in terms of the number of available hospital beds, with a national average of 2.8 beds per one thousand people [4].

ICU capacity is the biggest issue facing American hospitals. If the coronavirus pandemic continues to similar levels of the 1918 Spanish Influenza, roughly 2.9 million Americans will need ICU care, and hospitals are simply not equipped to handle such a large influx of patients, with fewer than one hundred thousand ICU beds across the country [5].

The United States has not yet reached the pandemic levels that are being seen in Italy, and yet hospitals have already depleted their supplies of personal protective equipment.

“No hospital will be able to function as normal,” says  Eric Toner, of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “It’s a question of whether they can adequately adjust the way they do things in order to handle the tsunami of patients that are coming their way.” [4]

The other major issue facing our hospitals is a ventilator shortage. Dr. William Graham Carlos a pulmonary critical care specialist at Indiana University School of Medicine explained that coronavirus causes the lungs to become inflamed, which makes it difficult for the patient to breathe. 

“[A ventilator] can supply higher levels of oxygen and also help push air into the lungs to open them up, and afford more opportunity to get oxygen into the patient,” he said [6].

These machines are typically a temporary part of the recovery process, however, they can be crucial at sustaining life in emergency situations. The number of ventilators in a hospital is usually proportional to the number of beds, so an average-sized hospital of 150 beds might have 20 ventilators on hand. This is completely inadequate in the case of a severe outbreak.

“We are not prepared, nor is any place prepared for a Wuhan-like outbreak,” said Toner, “and we would see the same sort of bad outcomes that they saw in Wuhan — with a very high case fatality rate, due largely to people not being able to access the needed intensive care.” [6]

Fatality is the Wrong Yardstick

Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, it has been clear that those who are elderly, who are immuno-compromised, or have other underlying conditions are the most at-risk for developing a fatal case of the virus. There are also many statistics that have shown that the coronavirus is not the most fatal outbreak the world has ever seen.

The doctor from Italy, however, argues that measuring the severity of the coronavirus in terms of the number of deaths it has caused does not truly represent the dangers of the disease, explaining that contracting the virus can impact your life in many ways, even if it doesn’t kill you.

Even after you’ve recovered from being sick, you could require up to four months of physical therapy before you feel like yourself again. The amount of scar tissue that you could develop on your lungs could restrict the amount of physical activity you are capable of doing for the rest of your life. Simply being at a hospital with a compromised immune system exposes you to the possibility of catching something else.

“No travel for leisure or business is worth this risk,” she says.

Read: Why Are People Hoarding Toilet Paper? Psychologists Have An Answer

Social Distancing is the only Chance we Have

According to experts, we are now in the mitigation phase of the coronavirus outbreak. This means that since the virus has already hit our population, our focus needs to be on reducing the damage from the disease.

An epidemiologist from UC San Francisco, Jeff Martin, explains that social distancing is critical during the COVID-19 outbreak because it is one of the only factors that we can effectively control. He says there are four main factors that affect how quickly a virus spreads: how inherently contagious the virus is, how susceptible people are to the infection, the number of contacts between people, and the duration of those contacts.

“We’re not at a stage to modify the first two factors – the biologic behavior of the virus or the susceptibility of individuals – but each of us can decrease the number and duration of our contacts with others,” he said [7].

Health experts’ main concern is the overwhelm the pandemic will place on our hospitals, making it crucial that we “flatten the curve”, aka reducing how quickly the virus passes through a population. This means that on any given day, fewer people will require critical care, and those who do will be able to receive the best care possible [7].

When Should You Call a Doctor?

The two most common symptoms of COVID-19 are a fever and a dry cough. By contrast, a common cold typically starts with a runny nose and a sore throat, without the fever or the cough, and the seasonal flu usually also features muscle aches, which is not a typical symptom of the novel coronavirus.

George Rutherford, III, MD, is encouraging everyone to get a thermometer and to take their temperature if they suspect they have a fever. He also emphasizes that shortness of breath is a more severe symptom of the virus, and anyone who experiences this should seek medical attention immediately [7].

The Young and Healthy Have a Critical Role to Play.

The severity of the COVID-19 virus has been shown to increase dramatically with age, putting our older populations at a much higher risk [8].

Rutherford stresses the important role that younger, healthy people play in preventing the spread to more vulnerable individuals. 

“It’s up to you to not get infected and to not infect others. Prevent infection by staying in your house, washing your hands, avoiding people who are sick. Society needs your help,” he says [7].

The doctor in Italy, who has already witnessed the devastating impact this virus can have on a population, could not agree more emphatically:

“It’s the civic and moral duty of every person, everywhere, to take part in the global effort to reduce this threat to humanity. To postpone any movement or travel that are not vitally essential, and to spread the disease as little as possible. Have your fun in June, July and August when this—hopefully—is over.” [2]

Keep Reading: What Do You Need to Buy During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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